Marketers now face tougher restrictions on their use of "robocalls" and other automated telemarketing techniques thanks to a new set of declaratory rulings issued by the FCC on Thursday.
Although the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 requires prior consent for autodialed, prerecorded or artificial voice calls to wireless and residential wireline numbers, marketers have still been able to exploit numerous loopholes to make questionable calls anyway.
Now, in response to thousands of consumer complaints and nearly two dozen petitions, the FCC has affirmed consumers' rights to control the calls they receive and made it clear that telephone companies can use robocall-blocking technology to help them.
The FCC also ruled that consumers have the right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts at any time.
When a phone number gets reassigned, marketers must stop calling the number after one call. Further, people listed among the contacts of a particular consumer cannot be assumed to give consent to receive robocalls from third-party applications downloaded by that consumer, the FCC said.
The same consent-based protections are in place for texts as for voice calls and Internet-to-phone text messages. Free calls or texts to alert consumers to possible fraud on their bank accounts or remind them of important medication refills were among just a few exceptions to the FCC's rules.
Unwanted calls are the largest subject of complaints received by the FCC; in 2014, it received more than 215,000 such complaints, it said.
Telemarketing efforts are widely used in both business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketing efforts, and the stakes are high. Earlier this year, Twitter called on the FCC to rule that those who call or text a wireless phone number for which consent was previously given should not be held accountable if that's no longer the case when it is reassigned.
Twitter did not respond to a request to comment for this story.
"My hope would be that robocalling wouldn't be part of any corporation's communication strategy in 2015," said author and Internet marketing consultant Brian Carter.
The marketing world has moved toward opt-in communication, Carter noted.
"If you still want to violate people's preferences in order to communicate with them, you're at least 10 years behind the curve," he said. "Your job as a company is to reach people with relevant info in a way and at a time that they welcome."
Marketers today have many options in that regard, including email and social media, Carter added.
The FCC's move is likely the first salvo in a longer battle, said Denis Pombriant, managing principal with Beagle Research Group.
"The key is understanding the customer's need, and that's getting easier with modern machine-learning technologies," he said. "I can easily foresee a time when customer profiles will contain a great deal of very specific information about customer likes and needs."
Businesses, in turn, will leverage analytics to target only willing customers while leaving others alone, he suggested.
"At that point, the robocall will cease to be a nuisance and the vendor will look more like a trusted advisor," he said. "The necessary technology is already beginning to appear on the market."
Yet while the FCC's new rules offer a step forward for the protection of consumers, they do little to protect businesses at the receiving end of such robocalls in the B2B world, said John Busby, a senior vice president with Marchex, which offers what it calls "Clean Call" spam-blocking technology in its call analytics platform for businesses.
Marchex estimates that robocalling has generated 100 million toll-free calls to businesses this year alone, costing them an estimated $1 billion in phone charges and billions more in lost productivity.
"Say you work in a call center and you get interrupted for three or four minutes by an unwanted call," he explained. "That costs a business real money."
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